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Don’t Take Your Child's Behavior Personally

Don’t Take Your Child's Behavior Personally

By Rebecca Eanes

Have you ever been on the receiving end of your child’s angry outburst? It’s hard not to take it personally when your child screams “I hate you!” or is rude to a playmate or another adult. It can seem like all your teaching has been pointless when your kid suddenly goes on a tirade, but as it turns out, it’s not a result of poor parenting or a sign that your child is on the wrong track. It’s all due to your child’s developing brain.

It’s important for parents and caregivers to know the basics of brain development because it empowers us to make informed decisions as we help our children navigate childhood. According to this piece from Harvard, brains are being built from the bottom up in a process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. They say, “The early years are the most active period for establishing neural connections, but new connections can form throughout life and unused connections continue to be pruned. Because this dynamic process never stops, it is impossible to determine what percentage of brain development occurs by a certain age.” Without some insight into child development, we can misinterpret the child’s actions and intentions. Very often, what we perceive as bad behavior is a mix of wrong expectations and misunderstandings that lead us to fret over the job we are doing as parents. 

To help me further understand how brain development factors into a child’s hurtful outbursts or rude words, I consulted Bridgett Miller, author of What Young Children Need You to Know and founder of Look with Love and Parenting with Intention on Facebook and Instagram. 

I asked her,  “A lot of parents take their children’s behaviors and words personally. In your book, you caution against this by offering some developmental insight as to why children flip from one extreme to another. It has to do with brain integration. Can you elaborate on that? What is integration and when can we expect the brain to be integrated?”

She responded: 

“Without some developmental insight into where ‘rude and inappropriate’ behavior is coming from, parents may be very worried (and insulted!) by the inconsiderate behavior and vehement words spewing from their child.
Young children live in the moment because their developing brains are currently wired to experience only one pure emotion or thought at a time. This means young children say what they think and behave how they feel without considering the potential consequences or impact of their actions. When they are happy, they are ecstatic, and when they are mad, they are downright fuming, and they don’t censor themselves in order to spare your feelings. Their behavior is their communication.
The prefrontal cortex of the developing brain usually needs five to seven years of good development for integration to take place, and in the case of more sensitive children, the brain may need between seven and nine years. More often than we realize, the behavioral expectations we put on our children are beyond their current capacity to deliver. Adults who don’t know this may incorrectly assume the child’s malicious behavior is premeditated and therefore feel obligated to discipline harshly in order to stifle their outbursts. This knee-jerk reaction misses the opportunity to teach children how to express their emotions in healthier and less offensive ways.
The starting place for dealing with any seemingly disrespectful behavior is to remember that the child’s words and actions aren’t personal but rather they are untamed expressions of immaturity. While hurtful words can be wounding and physical lashing out can be painful, it’s our responsibility as mature adults to manage our reaction in the heat of the moment. We must keep in mind that when the child is frustrated, their words are an attempt to communicate their frustration. If we start to feel personally attacked by their angry words, we may respond in ways that parallel those of the immature child.”

I found Miller’s answer so helpful in understanding why I needn’t take my child’s behavior or words personally. Intrigued to know even more about brain integration, I consulted The Whole Brain Child by Drs. Tina Bryson and Daniel Siegel. The authors speak of integration between the left (logical) and right (emotional) brain as well as the integration of the “upstairs” (thinking) and “downstairs” (primitive) brain.

They assert that, when your child is upset, you can best help by first appealing to their right brain by being emotionally soothing, and once the child is calm and receptive, bring in the left brain with lessons and discipline. This will facilitate integration. They also recommend “name it to tame it” to assist with left/right brain integration. When the right brain emotions are raging, help your child voice what they are feeling so that the left brain can help make sense of the experience.  

To assist with upstairs/downstairs integration, Drs. Bryson and Siegel suggest that you “engage, don’t enrage.” This means that you engage the thinking brain by asking questions rather than “poking” the lower brain with threats or yelling at the child. They also recommend providing lots of opportunities to exercise the thinking brain with games that teach problem-solving skills and logical thinking. 

While development isn’t something that can be taught, as parents we can take steps to facilitate growth rather than impede it. In doing so, we give them the best chance at growing optimally. As a bonus, we are less reactive or hurt when our children act out, and we can stop taking their behavior personally. 


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